Brexit: Theresa May's landmark EU withdrawal bill passes first parliamentary hurdle

The Government won the vote by 326 to 290 – a majority of 36

Ashley Cowburn
Political Correspondent
Tuesday 12 September 2017 01:31 BST
MPs vote on Brexit Bill after 13-hour debate

Theresa May’s landmark EU (Withdrawal) Bill has passed its first parliamentary hurdle, paving the way for greater powers to be handed to ministers through the first major piece of Brexit legislation.

MPs passed the legislation – often referred to as the Repeal Bill – by 326 votes to 290, giving the Government a majority of 36 after no Conservatives rebelled and several Labour politicians defied Jeremy Corbyn’s instruction to vote against.

The Prime Minister described the vote as a “historic decision to back the will of the British people”, adding: “Although there is more to do, this decision means we can move on with negotiations with solid foundations and we continue to encourage MPs from all parts of the UK to work together in support of this vital piece of legislation.”

Keir Starmer, the Shadow Brexit Secretary, said it was "a deeply disappointing result" and described the Bill as as "an affront to parliamentary democracy and a naked power grab" by Government ministers.

The Bill's aim is to transpose relevant EU law onto the UK statute book when the UK formally leaves the bloc in March 2019 and will also overturn the 1972 act that took Britain into the European Economic Community.

Major concerns had been raised, however, over the so-called Henry VIII powers in the Bill which grants ministers the power to amend law without normal parliamentary scrutiny – the reason for Labour’s decision to oppose the legislation.

But as MPs concluded debates at midnight a series of votes were then held. The Bill passed while Labour’s amendment – attempting to block the legislation – was defeated by 318 votes to 296.

A separate vote on the Government’s programme motion – setting out the time available for MPs to go through the Bill line by line in the Commons in the next stage of the process – also passed by 318 votes to 301.

Despite considerable opposition raised by Conservative backbenchers during the two days the Bill was debated, including one labelling the legislation as an “astonishing monstrosity”, no Tory MPs rebelled on the main vote.

This led to the Tory MP Anna Soubry – a critic of the Government’s Brexit approach – being criticised in the Commons by Labour MP David Lammy, who said: “Her bark has been loud, particularly on the Today programme, but her actions have been far less in these days that have followed those contributions.”

But it is clear that Ms May will face a greater threat from her own backbenchers in the next stages of the Bill as MPs seek to attach amendments to the Bill at the committee stage.

Speaking in the Commons on Monday, Bob Neill, the former Conservative minister, said he would support the Bill but warned there were a “number of areas” where it “needed improvement”.

Maria Miller, the Tory chairwoman of the Women and Equalities Select Committee in Westminster, echoed her colleague’s view, adding that one amendment to the Bill was needed explicating committing to “maintaining the current levels of equality protection".

On the Labour benches, a number of MPs broke ranks, including Frank Field, Ronnie Campbell, Kate Hoey, Kelvin Hopkins, John Mann, Dennis Skinner and Graham Stringer. Caroline Flint earlier said she intended to abstain.

During the debate Ms Flint, who represents the Don Valley constituency that voted to leave the EU at the referendum, said she would defy the party’s strict three-line whip as she was accused by opponents of the Bill of wanting to “thwart the result of the referendum and prevent or delay the UK leaving the EU”.

Joining Ms Flint in supporting the Bill, former Labour welfare minister Frank Field told MPs on Monday that he would prefer to see the draft legislation simplified to include the “crucial” details.

Last week Mr Corbyn’s office said that the Bill was “completely unacceptable” as it hands authority to ministers to amend the law without normal parliamentary scrutiny, under so-called Henry VIII powers.

Labour MP Stephen Kinnock echoed these comments in the Commons, adding the Bill “seeks to strip Parliament of its sovereign power” and “create a Cabinet of kings”.

“Let us make no mistake, this Bill is not about delivering the will of people, rather it's about gagging our democracy and this House by the way of a false discourse. It is a silent coup d'etat, masquerading as technical necessity,” the MP for Aberavon said.

Ed Davey, the former Liberal Democrat Cabinet minister, said that to allow the Government to have the additional powers “is tantamount to the temporary abolition of this House”.

“That is not what people have voted for and this House should defend itself and should defend democracy,” he said.

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